Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who transformed Britain in the 1980s with a core of conservative convictions and history’s most formidable handbag, died Monday of a stroke. She was 87.
The daughter of a provincial English grocer, Mrs. Thatcher shattered class and sex barriers to win election in 1979 as Britain’s first female prime minister. She engineered Britain’s victory over Argentina in the 1982 war over the Falkland Islands and became a critical ally and ideological soul mate of President Reagan in the West’s Cold War triumph over Soviet communism in Europe.
Mrs. Thatcher was famous for her uncompromising political style and unapologetic embrace of bedrock British middle-class values. “The lady’s not for turning,” she once famously remarked in a political debate.
By the time she was forced to step down by an internal Conservative Party revolt in November 1990, Mrs. Thatcher was the longest-serving prime minister since William Gladstone in the late 19th century and had the longest continuous term in power since Robert Banks Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool, retired in 1827.
But her plain-spoken, bulldozer style was employed in a career marked by paradoxes.
Outsider in a boys club
An outsider with a professional degree in chemistry, she defied the odds repeatedly in her improbable rise to Tory party leader and then to No. 10 Downing St. A devoted wife with no sympathy for the modern feminist movement, she was to become the most powerful female political leader in the world, easily dominating her male counterparts in the Cabinet and in the opposition.
Perhaps most remarkably, she used her conservative beliefs to fashion a radical transformation of her country, taking on entrenched labor unions and left-wing political barons to carry out an economic and social revolution that reversed more than a decade of decline in Britain.
A host of world leaders, led by President Obama, paid tribute to Mrs. Thatcher in the hours after her death.
“The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” Mr. Obama said. “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered. As prime minister, she helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best.”
Mrs. Thatcher relished ideological combat, and made no apologies for a domineering style of leadership that doomed any male politician rash enough to underestimate her intelligence or will. She introduced the verb “to handbag” into the English language the brusque metaphorical dismissal of political opponents or rivals standing in one’s way.
“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing,” she once said.
The greatest tribute to her impact may have come from her political opponents. Tony Blair was an open admirer of Mrs. Thatcher’s political style and used her resurrection of Britain’s Conservatives in the late 1970s as a blueprint to revamp the Labor Party in the 1990s.
“Margaret Thatcher was a towering political figure. Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world,” Mr. Blair said in a statement. “Margaret was such a leader. Her global impact was vast.”
When Mrs. Thatcher was asked in an interview about her greatest achievement, she said, “Tony Blair.” She was referring to Labor’s need to reform itself and drop such ideas as state-owned industries after a decade of defeat.